Your Take: Why Black America Should Fight for Public Media

It's about more than Big Bird and Elmo. Public broadcasting is our best hope for telling our own stories.


Throughout the proposed budget now before Congress are a host of cuts that could be critical to the well-being of black America. From health care and Social Security to federal food programs, everything seems to be on the table. Given the weight of those issues, it's tough to make an argument that funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting should also be on your list of concerns, but let me try.

To clarify, CPB is the organization through which funds supporting public media are funneled. They are then redistributed to a host of outlets -- including PBS, NPR, individual stations and "minority consortia" -- that then fund individual projects and producers. Because of this complicated structure, zeroing out on CPB funding will have a chilling domino effect throughout the public-media community overall, not just at CPB.

As usual, the hardest-hit victims won't be PBS or NPR; they'll be the people on the ground -- minority and independent filmmakers and digital storytellers for whom public grants are often their sole source of funding. We can't allow this to happen.

The truth is that quietly (too quietly), public media could be black America's most promising frontier for distribution of serious, noncommercial content -- the kind we say we want but never seem to get.

For example, the National Black Programming Consortium (and its partner organizations serving the Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander and Asian communities) has provided critical funding for important and innovative documentary producers such as the groups behind Eyes on the Prize and Africans in America. Those organizations have also taken the lead in bringing digital literacy and training to underserved communities.

These are the programs you know, but in fact, PBS is sitting on a treasure trove of content -- program archives, full-length and mini documentaries, digital projects and series pilots -- by and about the minority community, and much more is in the works. However, because of limited programming space, rights issues or lack of sponsorship, much of it has never seen the light of day.

But at this moment, with funding from CPB, PBS stations are opening up alternative digital channels that are starved for quality content that appeals to the changing face of America. Leading stations, like Boston's WGBH, are planning launches of experimental channels across many platforms that will offer broad opportunities for blacks and other minorities to share their work on a global scale.

Sure, you can launch your own video app or webisodes and fight for attention in that crowd. But this is public space, with immense reach into existing households and cutting-edge technology, owned and paid for by American taxpayers, and presumably ours to use.

It's a potential power that, if harnessed, can do wonders for educating and informing black and other minority communities and for telling stories that never get told. If the funding goes, however, so does that potential.

But as the debate goes before Congress, are PBS and NPR making this argument? Unfortunately, public media continue to be their own enemy in this regard. In four separate statements, the heads of PBS, NPR, CPB and the Association of Public Television Stations trot out the predictable lines: "Save Sesame Street. Save our jobs."